The Trail – Chapter 11

The woman sat on a cushioned chair in the top floor of a cold stone tower; alone. Silent. With a book in her lap.  

She was not reading the book – it was closed – but she looked down at its cover and imagined its contents. 

Of course, she would not open it. It had been years (two exactly) since she last opened it, which had been a mistake. Instead she held it tenderly in her lap like the corpse of a best friend, and felt a dull ache in her chest.  

The woman gravitated closer and closer to the emotions trying to come forth. She did not do this voluntarily. It was a masochistic tendency she could not explain. Perhaps it was just something to do; chafe against the unpleasant sensation taking hold in her. But she did not let the experience continue. With a knee-jerk reaction she cut it off and shielded herself behind a wall of numb apathy. The emotion died, along with anything else inside, and her world was once again plunged into a grey indifference. 

This technique of mental control came as easily as breathing. She couldn’t remember when she had developed the habit – and she didn’t want to. She didn’t care. Like a thick fog it clouded everything over and hid her in the bliss of unfeeling. It was far better than the alternative. 

She stood and returned the book to the dusty shelf. A cold breeze from the window cut through the room, bringing with it the smells of pine and the rustic scent of early spring. The woman walked to the window and looked out upon the ever-stretching landscape of forest, walled by distant mountain ranges.  

This and all I can see is my home, she thought to herself. There has never before been a prison so vast. 

Dawn was beginning to break against the tower’s mossy walls. She knew she had best hurry back before her absence was noted. The woman sighed, gave one last look at the bookshelf in the lonely tower, and took the stairs down. As she stepped outside the early morning breeze brushed her with a dewy chill. The day would prove cool and temperate, she guessed. 

The woman locked the door with an iron key only she possessed or even knew of, and returned to the thin footpath winding into the woods, leaving behind the old tower and its small adjacent graveyard dotted with headstones whose names had been long forgotten.   

In the silver-red light of the new day the dawn chorus of songbirds struck its first chords. She did not know their names, but she could identify their calls all the same, and could match the call with their coloration and plumage. She had allowed her cold mental wall to drop as she followed the path through the canopy of music. That’s exactly as it sounded to her ears; music in its most natural form. It was one of the few joys she still allowed herself. A sad smile of things long left behind broke through the mask. She gave herself up to the small twinge of emotion before picking up the pace. 

Ahead, a wealth of evergreens shed their needles to become skeletal trunks, choked over with cattails and aquatic ferns. Through the wall of bare trees she could see a sparkling body of water drawing near.   

It was a small lake, over-grown with reeds and still as the morning sky. She watched it while following the path that ran closer to its edge. So tall and dense was the wall of cattails about the lake’s edge that the water itself could only be seen at sparse moments. With the warming of the season wildlife would soon flourish in the still waters.  

The trail split up ahead to the left and right. The woman took the right path, toward the burbling stream that fed the pond. Crossing was an easy task, as the stream was not particularly wide, nor very powerful. She stepped lightly from stone to stone, and soon emerged from the woods. 

An open tract of grassland spread before her now, dominated by buildings of cold grey stone, wooden barns, and footpaths pounded into the soil. The edge of the lake curved away to her left, and hugging its south-eastern banks was a fenced-off stableyard and adjoining stables. The horses were out in the early morning, grazing in silence. 

In front of her, to the south, stood two greenhouses and a series of raised-bed gardens huddled together in a loose grid. Two hundred meters past stood an old stone keep and all its adjoining structures. The keep dwarfed all other buildings with its bulk, standing there like the cold remains of a fallen giant. The windows were dark, its turrets tall and uninviting. Green penants hung limp in the morning light.  

And just like that, like a dead leaf caught in the autumn wind, the small pocket of joy nestled in her heart was gone. And like a tree shedding its leaves in an attempt at survival, she fell into the cold grey trance of numbness and callous indifference yet again. This was simply the reality of her life, she thought.  

And now I’m back again. Back to reality.   

Any remorse she would have felt from this thought plied feebly at her deadened senses like a weak wind against a rock. She did not truly feel it. She did not truly feel anything. 

She took just a moment to ensure no one could see her before walking quickly through the gardens and greenhouses and back to the keep.  

She did not get far. Just as she reached the first greenhouse, movement caught her eye and made her stop short. Emerging in the distance – far past the stableyard to the east – came riding a unit of armed horsemen dressed in green livery.   

The Baron’s men, she thought. 

She pressed herself up against the corner of the greenhouse, trying to stay out of sight. In between the riders was suspended a makeshift stretcher, a dark form cradled within. 

Was one of them injured? She blinked in the morning light. I only see six horses, not seven. Did they lose a horse? 

The group rode across the open field toward the keep, following the shortest of the worn paths. She could see the leader of the group. The man was all long, ropy muscle. He had short black hair up in a top knot. A long, white scar marred his otherwise handsome face. Over one shoulder a rifle was slung, and a series of knives ran along his belt next to a curved shortsword. He held himself confidently upon his dappled mare, loose and alert.  

The woman shivered in fear at the sight of the man.  

Duncan Le Treu. 

The soldiers rode out of sight, straight toward the keep’s front entrance. 

They passed right by the stables without stopping, she thought to herself. Something is wrong. She re-doubled her pace, past the gardens and the chapel connected to the keep.  

Through a back storeroom entrance she entered the keep without being noticed. From there she stopped trying to conceal her passage, instead walking openly through the kitchen and to the main landing. The servants were already up and about, preparing the morning meal and attending to the Baron’s needs. They curtsied to her as she passed, offering up “M’lady” in quiet murmurs.  

By the time she reached the main landing the riders had dismounted, entered, and summoned the Baron. Their boots dragged mud and dirt into the foyer, though none seemed to notice or care. They brought with them the smell of tobacco and sweat.  

The Baron had his back to her, dressed hastily in untied boots and red-gold finery. His thinning hair stood at ends, clearly having just risen out of bed.  

They were conversing in curt words – the Baron and Duncan –  while the men-at-arms stood milling about, waiting for a command. She could pick up a few sparse words from Duncan. 

“…off the road. And, no, no one else.”  

The Baron sounded irritable in his response. 

“The monster again, isn’t it. Another dead villager?” 

Duncan shifted on his feet and casually tucked his hands in his sword-belt.  

“Not this time, lord. At least, I don’t recognize him, nor do any of my men.” 

My men, he said, the woman noted. Not your men. 

Duncan continued, not noticing his own error.  

“And there was something else…” Duncan waved forth one of the men-at-arms, who brought him a long, curved implement of what looked like antler or bone. 

“…he had this on him.”  Duncan held it out to the Baron, who took it into his hands with hesitation. 

The woman could not see the expression on the Baron’s face, given that his back was to her, but his voice, now low and curt, told her enough. 

“Show me to him,” the Baron muttered.  

Duncan led him out the front entrance where they had left the horses, now pawing at the ground in impatience. The other men-at-arms shuffled out behind them. The door was left open. 

The woman had watched all this from the top of the landing, but had lost sight once they walked out the front door. Her curiosity was too aroused to stay put. She descended the stairs to afford her a view out the front door. 

The Baron, Duncan, and the men-at-arms were circled around the stretcher which bore atop it an unmoving form. At first the woman could not tell the form was a person. A cloak splayed across its limp body, covered in equal parts dirt and blood. Wearing the cloak was a man, dead or close to dead, shot through the chest with a black arrow.  

The woman had seen many rough-and-tumble sorts throughout her life; loggers, trappers, miners, and the like. But the man on the stretcher was perhaps the most filthy creature she had ever seen. His dark beard grew from a face mired in mud and dried gore. A nasty gash ran the length of his scalp, still pink and glistening.  

His thread-bare clothing was torn in most places, and stained with sweat and grime in others. Through his boot she could see bare toes poking out, early in the stages of frostbite. The color of the man’s skin was indeterminable beneath the layers of dirt and filth. Of his eyes and face she could see very little, so covered over in a mess of brown hair and fresh claw-marks. He looked like a wretched, broken creature of the wilds, put down like a rabid dog. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing. 

The sound of Le Treu’s voice, directed at her, made the woman jump in surprise.  

“M’lady. Good morning.”  He smiled a handsome smile, the scar curving a white, jagged line across his face. Everyone turned to face her in surprise, including the Baron, whose expression went rigid. 

“What are you doing out here.” The hard look in his eyes spoke volumes. 

What would have normally crippled the woman with fear in the attention of her husband instead felt like…nothing. Nothing at all. Just a deadened weight in her chest like a cold lump of iron. 

She started to come up with an excuse – something innocent to say that would deflect the ire of the Baron. Before she could, Duncan cut in. 

“Lord, what should we do with him?” 

The Baron turned back to Le Treu, the woman now forgotten. “Is he alive?” 

Duncan looked over the still form. “Barely. The arrow slipped right through his ribs. Should have died a long time ago.” 

A period of silence came over the group as they redirected their attention toward the huddled form on the stretcher. Finally the Baron spoke, almost too quietly for her to hear. 

“And the demon?” 

Le Treu shook his head. “No sign of it.” 

The Baron grunted and lowered his bulky form to better scrutinize the dying man with the arrow in his chest. 

“…The arrow is different.” 

Duncan nodded. “Not the Render’s arrow. It uses grey-shafted bone arrowheads. This looks more like a hunter’s arrow.”  

He pointed vaguely at the arrow with his boot. “Fletching’s different too. Probably a steel arrowhead, though I can’t know for sure without pulling it out of the poor sod.” 

“Shot with his own arrow? That doesn’t make any sense.” 

Duncan shrugged – and as the Baron closely scrutinized the weapon – risked a sly smile at the woman, his eyes full of lechery. A shiver of cold horror shot down her spine. No one else noticed. 

The Baron straightened back up with a grunt and massaged the bridge of his nose with his fingers. She recognized the gesture. Le Treu, recognizing it as well, allowed the moment to pass in silence. 

The Baron looked back at the antler weapon in his ringed hand: “This is the Render’s bow…”  

He stared at the dying man with a new light in his eyes not previously there. 

“This man and the demon must have battled with each other’s weapons. But how…and why?” 

Duncan Le Treu scoffed. “Another dead to the demon, then.” 

The Baron looked sharply at him, conviction burning in his gaze.  

“No.” 

 Duncan’s eyebrows shot up. “M’lord?”  

“No, Le Treu. We must not let this man die.” Abruptly the Baron turned his back on Duncan and began addressing the men-at-arms. 

 “You and you; fetch that damn herbalist. I want you, you, and you to clean out the biggest cell we have; no rats, no shit, no leaks.” The men-at-arms scattered to their various duties, some glancing at Duncan for confirmation before doing so. 

“Duncan,” the Baron put a thick hand on Le Treu’s shoulder “let’s keep this man out of sight. Bring him down below and keep it discreet.”  

He swept his gaze over those remaining, now standing alert, until he came to the woman. He looked at her with spite, as though she were the cause of all his problems. 

“Get back inside.”  

It was a command. 

Mute and unflinching, she drifted back into the keep like a ghost. 

The Trail – Chapter 10

Slowly the man became aware again. He felt like cotton had been stuffed in his ears, and his face tingled with a strange numbness. His thoughts were sluggish and weak. 

What the hell happened… He blinked in the darkness as his eyes refocused. I must have blacked out… He looked down. 

He was lying propped up on his back in a snowbank. Pierced deep in his chest was a black arrow. He stared down dumbly at the fletching of the arrow – his arrow – not fully understanding. 

Wait…when did this…what is this…? He felt like he was suffocating.  

Is that an arrow in my chest? Is an arrow in the chest something you survive from? I can’t remember… 

Viewing his situation through layers of shock, he could not comprehend the significance of the situation. But as consciousness fully returned, that soon ended. The pain finally hit him. 

It felt like something was grasping at his ribs, trying to pry open his chest from within. He couldn’t breathe, move, or feel his legs. 

Oh gods. Oh gods no… 

He succumbed to a full-fledged panic. The pain was too much to bear. Tears welled in his eyes as he grasped feebly at the shaft sticking out from between his ribs, but it only made the agony worse. His head lolled to his chest as he began to black out again, but he was denied the bliss of the void at the last second. 

So there he lay slumped on the frozen ground, gasping and writhing. Slipped between two of his ribs the shaft of the arrow crushed his lungs every time he inhaled. Amid the throws of torturous pain he found that he could breathe small sips of air at a time, agonizing though it was.  

With great effort he picked his head up. The world spun dangerously, but still he could see the dark form of the Wood Elf in the same spot, fifteen feet away. It lay hunched on the ground in pain, a grey arrow burrowed firmly in its thigh. Dark arterial blood ran down its leg. 

But still the Elf tried to stand. Feebly it propped itself up on the man’s bow, only to stumble and fall back down again. 

“Enough!!” The man’s shout was strained and hoarse. “Hasn’t this…,” he paused to catch his feeble breath “…been enough?” The Elf stopped to watch him. 

His vision was see-sawing back and forth.  

“How much more fighting, and killing,” he threw his trembling hands in the air with each word to emphasize his point. “and hunting, and tormenting must you do before it is ENOUGH!?” He choked on the last word. Blood ran from his mouth and dribbled down his chin like drool. His head lolled uneasily on his shoulders.  

He smiled with a wild look in his eyes – his teeth smeared in the red of his own blood.  

“And now..!” Deliriously he gestured to the shaft in his chest. “I’m going to die for THIS!! FOR WHAT!!?” He screamed at the Elf, now listening in silence. 

The man fell into a fit of wet, bloody coughs. 

“WHY,” he shouted with a look of pleading on his tear-streaked face.  

“WHY ARE WE FIGHTING?!!” The effort of screaming nearly made him lose consciousness again. Slowly his breath came in a soft, dying squeal. His head lolled back, and he looked up at the dark sky. 

“I hate you,” he said, quieter this time. The Elf did not respond. 

“I really hate you. I hate you like I hate myself.” His body lay limp.  

 The pain did not ease.  

“I hate this life.” 

He cried softly, painfully, staring up at what he could never see. 


An unknown period of time had passed before the man came to. For a long while he simply laid there, grappling with consciousness. The Wood Elf laid in the same spot, unmoving. 

I’m…dying. 

The wind lashed at the prone man in the darkness. He hardly noticed. The magnitude and severity of the pain he felt put into question everything that had once been reality. What was the world like before physical agony had consumed him? He couldn’t imagine it. How could anything else have ever been? 

He felt a powerful urge to cough and tried with all the willpower remaining in his mind to resist. Sure enough, his chest heaved with wet coughing that sent blasts of pain through his body. He blacked out. 


In and out – back and forth the world spun. A voice on the wind told him to arise.  

But from deep within, another gravity was pulling at him, and the man understood it well – far better than he did the voice on the wind. It was the pull of death.  

To the man it represented a sad inevitability – not to say that death saddened him, so much as his yearning for it did. It told him he was not meant to be a part of this world. Perhaps he had been misplaced here. Perhaps he had fought too hard to stay in it. 

The pull of death touched him with the heavy hand of existential exhaustion; a soul reminded of its impossibly weighted burden. Like the seduction of sleep it promised him a sort of bliss – a reprieve from all affliction and pain.  

The man saw himself sitting on the edge of life and death – both in and out of his body. 

He stared over the edge of the precipice. The void beneath yawned into nothingness. It was not the blackness of a pit, but rather a lacking of color and all features: the end of everything. He was afraid of it. 

Behind him was a dim light in the distance, far away from the precipice, from where he could perceive sounds and smells. From that light radiated sadness and happiness, joy and despair, and pleasure and pain. Back there was life. 

But the yawning void was dragging him in like gravity.  

It would be so simple; all he had to do was lean into the pit and fall. It was not hard to do. In fact, it was the easiest possible choice. But still he was afraid.  

From the rippling light behind him he heard familiar noises, and turned weakly to look at it, as if caught in a dream. In the light were brief, flashing images of scenes the man recognized. They were from his childhood – from his own perspective. He saw the cruel, grey streets. He saw skyships across smoggy skies. He saw furry white mold on his heel of bread – bread that he had been desperately hungry for.  

The scenes flashed by in a rush. His adolescence were mostly filled with memories of Hilda; their first meeting in the jailhouse, her harsh instructing, and his eager learning. He saw her beautiful face – she had always been beautiful to him – with her dark red hair and even darker eyes. He missed her. 

The next part hurt him deeply to watch. It was full of snow and loneliness, and ended in humiliation.  

Years passed by in seconds.  

 The flashing memories came to an end. Something felt incomplete. What was it? 

I must go north. I must stop what is about to take place. I am the only one who can. It rests on me alone. 

But was it worth it? Here was an opportunity to end it, to let all of that go and to experience the peace of the ever-after. How long had he been wishing for this, all the while barely treading the poisonous waters of life? How many hours had he spent waiting with a tired reluctance, like a worn-out clock ticking off its last minutes? Well here it was. 

But what would happen if he didn’t take it? What would happen if he were to live? It would come again to take him – of that he could be sure. In fact, death was the only guarantee of life.   

Heavy though it was, harrying and desperate though it became, his life was impermanent, along with the pain it brought. It was guaranteed to end at some point, regardless of what he did. So why had he become so immersed in its suffering as to believe it an ultimate truth? 

He could not stop death, so why yearn so strongly for something that was inevitable to come? Why struggle against the briefest of pains, knowing full well it was only a fleeting experience? 

The iron shutters that had become his eyelids opened slightly. Night or day – it didn’t really matter. Wraith-like aberrations drifted above him. They had hollow faces wracked with their final howls of death. His eyes closed. 

He was brought back by the soft squeals of his own dying breaths ebbing from his paralyzed windpipe. In and out. He could hear nothing but that sound, as though underwater with nothing else to listen to. In and out. The pain came now in sharp, knife-edged waves every time he inhaled.   

In and out. His whole body tingled with pins and needles. In and out. Suddenly he could feel the presence of something close by. He slowly tilted his head. 

Standing next to him – or sitting, rather – was a furred creature of a muscled tan hide. It’s paws were the size of his head. The powerful feline face regarded him in silence, its golden eyes vast and incandescent. 

It was no ordinary beast, for in its gaze was the wisdom of centuries, and the patience of lifetimes.  The large puma stood, stretched, and slunk several meters away before sitting again, waiting for him. Waiting to lead him to places unknown to see something not yet seen. 

The hunter barely understood all of this in the feverish swamp that was his dying mind, and thanks to his complete delirium he did not question it or think it particularly odd in the least – like a dreamer being led casually through a dream.  

The grasp of death still clung to his ankles like thick mud, trying to pull him below. But now he resisted it. This creature was about to lead him to something incredible, something divine. Whatever that could be was worth clinging to the laborious shores of life a little longer. 

The puma sat there waiting like a statue. He felt nothing anymore. Gently, using the antler longbow as a crutch, he staggered to his feet. The world spun in an odd, feverish haze. His up had become his down, and his left and right no longer mattered.  

He had to follow it. He had to see.

End of Book One

The Trail – Chapter 9

He stoked the flames of the fire with what dry tinder he had, but was careful not to look into it. Instead, he huddled with his back to it – perhaps not the safest practice – but he could not afford to ruin his meager night vision by looking into the bright flames. 

The fire crackled and popped quietly behind him, and the vaporous black smoke rose up high into the heavens and was carried off in the wind. It would attract the predator and lead it right into the man’s ambush, if all went according to plan.

He peered into the darkness at the vague form of the aqueduct standing tall in the near distance. Its presence felt alien and out of place set against its barren surroundings, and did nothing to reassure him.

At least it makes an interesting backdrop. The Battle of the Lost Aqueduct. He chuckled at his morose humor. How stupid.

He had been waiting in the darkness like this for what seemed like a lifetime, but was only two hours. He had fully expected to have to find ways of keeping himself awake, but for some reason sleep was far away. Instead he huddled there, wide awake, awaiting what would come.

The wind had abated for a time, leaving only a chilling breeze in its wake. The snowy haze shifted about the mountain’s shoulder like a silver veil.

Nothing stirred. It seemed to the man like he was the only living creature up there in the darkness. He began to wonder if this were actually true. If he listened very closely, he could hear the mountain grasses and hardy bushes shuffle and hiss in the lonely breeze. This reassured him somehow – further affirming his belief that he had chosen the correct location to make a last stand. There was nowhere to run, no one to save him, and nothing to do but fight to the death.

Anticipation nearly drove him over the edge. He couldn’t help asking the same questions over and over again: Will I live or will I die? If I die, how painful will it be? Will my last thought be of regret? Or will I die satisfied that I tried? 

Six hours until sunrise. In the distance, something crunched into snow. The man froze – not daring to even breathe.

Silence. His fingers curled tighter about the hunting bow.

Is this it? Is it finally happening?!  

Suddenly he was afraid. But he would not be paralyzed by it. He ignored the voice telling him to run far away. Careful not to make a sound, he shifted such that his legs were beneath him and ready to spring. 

Through a clever crack in the cover he peaked with one eye closed. The fire popped and sparked behind him, but he was too focused to take notice. So dark were his surroundings that everything looked more or less the same. A block of aqueduct ruin could very well be a bush as it could a monster. Through the crack he could see the small field of rubble and snow drifts, his strategic cover positions, and nothing beyond that. A vague black shape caught his attention, motionless out in the open, but he disregarded it as a boulder.

He scanned left and right, and as he did so the black shape moved. He locked onto it and watched with a racing pulse. The shape slunk quietly past what could have been a bush, then disappeared out of sight. 

It’s here.

The fear grew within his mind and the blood ran hot through his veins.  

Can I do this? Can I really do this? 

Suddenly he was sweating. I’ve made it this far, but it means nothing if I…. A lump formed in his throat. I have to live through this! I have to survive! 

The doubts and anxieties were dizzying. 

 He brought himself back to reality. He had a strategy and would just have to follow through.

Beneath him his legs burned from staying in a motionless crouch for so long, and suddenly he became aware of an overwhelming urge to pee. He didn’t dare take his eye off the crack. The fingers of his right hand clenched and unclenched to stay warm. Lightly they played across the fletching of the arrow knocked to the bow.

Movement again. The form doubled back out into the open with patient stealth, but the frigid ground crunched loudly beneath its feet. The man’s eyes had become better accustomed to the patterns of movement the ambiguous shape made. Now he could see its two curling horns, its trailing tail, and a long weapon made of something like antlers in its grasp. It was wearing clothing, that much he could tell, but the form and nature of it he could not make out. It moved stooped to the ground as though it were not fully bipedal, tailing flicking behind it.  

The tension built within him to a breaking point, and although the fear, hesitation, regret, and dread told him to forever remain crouched behind cover where he might stall a little longer, still he drew fletching to cheek, stood, and let fly the first shot. 

The limbs of the bow snapped forward in the release, and the arrow vanished from his grip. The shot went wide and the dark form sprang immediately into a counter-attack. Returning fire came before the man’s arrow had struck an obstacle in the distance. He ducked back down just as the incoming projectile ricocheted off his cover and shattered into two pieces.

From deep within his chest flushed a rush of adrenaline. He drew three arrows at a time out of the ground and fired back in rapid succession as he advanced to the next position. The creature had taken cover behind a boulder, but the man didn’t care. He fired three arrows into the corner of the boulder without expecting to land a hit, and had advanced successfully to the next position by his fourth.  

He ducked down and plucked more arrows from the next supply. His breath came just as quickly as his pulse. His fingers had warmed up and his shoulders had loosened with the previous volley.  

The man loaded a fresh arrow and paused. Something didn’t seem right, and he had learned a long time ago to listen to his instincts when they warned him like this.

The wind picked up across the barren rocks. As quickly as he could the man dropped the bow and drew forth his sling, loading a round stone into the leather pouch from the small pile of rocks beside him. Back pressed up against cover, he looked left and right while keeping his wits about him.

From his left side burst the predator in full view, its long antler bow drawn to full aim.

Although the man was fully expecting such a surprise attack, still he flinched at the sight of the horned skull no more than twenty feet from him. He shouted in alarm as the arrow leaped at him, while at the same time he let fly a stone from his sling with all the force his arm could muster. 

His aim was true. The stone struck the predator’s left hand with full force, clacking loudly against the bone of its knuckles. It growled and dropped its longbow.

The man glanced down to see that the predator’s arrow had missed by a slim margin – piercing his cloak rather than his bowels. A sickening feeling of mixed relief and horror caused panic to overwhelm him. Desperately he tried to retreat, but his cloak was solidly pinned to the frozen ground by the arrow.

The predator seized the advantage. With a howl it drew forth a curved sickle-looking weapon made of bone and charged at the prostrated man, leaping wildly over a snowbank to do so.  

He did the first thing he could think of – snatch another stone and loose.

His assailant was within ten feet as he lashed another stone from his sling at it. The creature predicted the attack and scrambled out of the way to the left, but its leg broke through the snowbank and caused it to stumble. 

The man wasted no time. He had unpinned the clasp of his cloak from his neck and scrambled back on his feet in the blink of an eye, knocking over the arrow supply and bashing his knee against a piece of rubble in the process. 

The renewed wind peppered his face and eyes with snow crystals, blinding him just as he went for his hatchet at his hip. It didn’t stop his momentum. He swung blindly out in front of him with the weapon, but the steel only cut the cold air. 

Heart pounding, he ran his sleeve over his face to clear his eyes and looked around, just as the predator reached its fallen antler bow. 

“Shit!” 

He sprang for his own bow lying on the ground and groped about in the snow for an arrow. The predator was faster – it had leveled the longbow at the man and knocked an arrow before he could arm himself.

But the man had broken several of the predator’s fingers with the last shot from his sling and the creature’s arrow flew wide as a result. It burrowed into the frozen soil in the distance with frightening speed. The hunter had thrown himself to the side in a desperate dodge.

In the heat of the moment the man had given up on recovering his bow and arrow and charged his enemy head-on with a roar.

In four strides he closed the distance with knife and axe akimbo. His foe back-peddled in an attempt to gain distance, but it backed right into a massive hunk of rubble, with nowhere to run. It dropped its bow and the man was upon it with a steel fury.

It dodged the axe and barely caught the wrist wielding the knife. 

With its powerful legs it kicked the hunter in the chest. The man wasn’t expecting it, and went tumbling onto his back. The pain was not so great, but the blow had knocked the wind out of him.

He scrambled back on the ground in a panic, struggling to regain his breath. The creature closed the gap again, scooping up its bone weapon in the process. 

The primitive blade came screaming at the man’s head just as he was regaining his feet. He gave a grunt and ducked – a fraction of a second too slow. 

Stars exploded across his dimming vision like flickering sparks. He staggered to the side and felt the world swim and spin. He broke the fall with his hands, and some deep instinct within him, like a wild animal, took over and drove him to flee without his permission or knowledge. 

He scrambled over the nearest piece of cover. His vision cleared, leaving him with a crippling headache that struck the insides of his skull like a gong. Hot blood ran down his face in rivulets. Somehow he was alive.

But he was far from safe. The predator was on him in seconds, its bone hook freshly wetted with his blood. 

“Fuckin…dammit!!” He groped about on the ground for a stone. 

The predator leaped and landed upon his cover with unnatural agility. With a howl it slashed at his head again, the weapon screaming through the air, casting his already spilled blood upon the frozen ground.

The man leaned back as the bone hook passed harmlessly by his head (splattering his face with more of his own blood in the process) and threw himself into his foe in a full-body tackle.

His body weight and the exploding force of his coiled legs were more than enough to take the predator off its feet. They both hit the ground with the man on top, crushing the horned creature beneath. 

The two fell into a frenzied grapple. They tumbled over each other like wild animals; punching, kicking, slashing, choking, and doing anything in their power to be the last one standing.

The man struggled to hold his own against an opponent with four grasping appendages. It’s prehensile feet choked him by the throat while its clawed hands rent the hatchet from his grasp, sending the gleaming weapon spinning off into the darkness.  

There on his back beneath his opponent the man squirmed in a panic, kicking out his legs on the ground in an attempt to gain leverage. His left boot found purchase.

With a powerful burst of strength he arced his back, threw his hips, and sent both of them tumbling over, putting him on top. The predator’s grip loosened for a split second – enough for him to break its hold and strike back. 

The man gouged at the creature with a knife. The creature tore at the man with its claws. Across the snowy ground their blood mixed together in dark red. They screamed at each other – never understanding or even listening to what was being said. 

Somewhere in the epileptic melee the knife was lost along with the sanity of the two combatants. The frenzy of battle drove reason and rational from them – or perhaps it was a condition of their own doing. They clashed like something possessed.

The man smashed at his enemy’s head with a bloodied stone. The creature tore open the man’s face with its claws. Neither would back down. So furiously bloody was the struggle that the snows around them had melted into water, so the two hunters fought tooth and claw in a gory sludge of their own making. Steam rose from their bodies and sweat ran down their skin.

In the heat of the moment the grapple broke. The man threw the creature off and both went tumbling away from each other, right back to where they started.  

Both bloodied forms staggered in the cold darkness. Their breath came in ragged gasps and pained groans. The man’s left eye wasn’t working, he couldn’t feel his scalp, and he was seeing double. The predator, some twenty feet away, wheezed with each breath. The man’s knife remained lodged in its shoulder, and it could not stand up straight anymore with the number of ribs he had shattered. It’s skull head looked cracked and splintered.  

But the man did not notice or care for either of their pains. In the depth of battle he had lost himself to a mindless bloodlust. The creature – the thing he called the predator – was not really there in his eyes. All he could see was an anomaly – the aspect of all of his hatred, anger, and bitterness manifest in reality. The predator instead became everything and everyone that had hurt, angered, or otherwise wronged the man in some way. And here he had a chance to enact retribution – an enemy that had unknowingly taken on all of his repressed animosity.  

The stress, the pain, the bitterness and suffering that the man had pushed deeper and deeper down into the pits of his psyche had finally erupted after years of repression and self-mutilation. And any thoughts of kindness or goodwill, love or compassion, understanding or forgiveness, were vaporized in the process. He would kill this enemy of his and sacrifice anything to do it – no matter the cost. 

But then something happened.

The horned goat skull fell apart in pieces onto the ground like shards of porcelain, and the façade of delusion peeled back and the man’s eyes could finally see clearly again. 

Beneath the skull mask was a face – browned by sunlight and heavy with sorrow. Its amber eyes gleamed golden with intelligence and anger. Upon its face grew tufted brown fur like an ape, with an upturned velvety nose above. Its stout teeth were sharp and ridged, flashing white in a scowl. On either side of its head were long, pointed ears, and the man immediately knew what it was.  

“An Elf…,” He gasped under his breath. “A Wood Elf…” 

All of the malice and ill-will that lay piled inside his mind smoldered to ash and was scattered on the wind. This was no demon, nor even a monster. The enemy before him was a breathing, feeling, intelligent being. He could read the look on the Wood Elf’s face. It glowered with enmity – a look hell-bend on vengeance. 

“Why…,” was all the man could say. 

Lying there on the ground before the Elf was the man’s hunting bow, and before the man was the Wood Elf’s antler bow.

Both were loaded with an arrow.

The Elf glanced down at the weapon, and the man noticed.  

“Don’t…,” he quietly pleaded, too late. The Elf sprang for the weapon.

“NO!!” 

The Elf snatched up the hunting bow. The man snatched up the longbow. Both drew to cheek and fired. 

The winged arrows flew from the two hunters in perfect synchronization. Faster than the eye can observe they passed each other in midair – one black and steel-tipped, the other grey and bone-tipped. 

Both shots found their targets.

A force like a sledgehammer slammed into the hunter and the world spun. 

The Trail – Chapter 8

The wind lashed at the man. A haze of drifting snow flurries and haunting cloud banks obscured his view.

Gingerly the traveler picked his way between cold grey rocky outcroppings, clutching his arms tightly to his chest with numb hands tucked into his armpits. Loose shale gave way beneath his heels and tumbled into the shallow crevasses of snow. His genitals had shrunk closer to his body in a desperate attempt to conserve body heat.

With each exhalation the cold crystalized his breath and bore it away into the ether. Every time he felt a small piece of his strength leave him.

Suddenly in mid-step his foot punched through a deceptively deep snowbank, causing him to careen forward onto his face. His hands shot out from beneath his armpits to soften the fall, and they too when straight through the snowbank.

Cussing the foulest of curses under his breath, the shivering man scrambled upon the ground before tearing free his leg from the snow, losing his boot somewhere within.

His bare toes poked through his thinning sock, looking grey and unhealthy.

Plunging his arm down into the hole his leg had made, he fumbled about for his lost boot. Eventually he tore it free from the depths, though now full of snow and ice.

“Fucking…GODDAMN IT!”

He almost hurled his boot in rage but regained control at the last second. This was all very typical, he thought. In the man’s mind his life was a chain of events to be endured, not enjoyed. For some reason he, singularly, was selected to struggle, not sail, through an ever-compounding series of hardships.

He did not question this understanding. He accepted it like he accepted the sky to be blue. Of course things were this way – how could they be any other?

“What a fucking joke.” He knocked the snow loose from his boot and jammed his now freezing foot back into it.

Even to his own ears the endless stream of indignation sounded pathetic, which only served to further fuel the fire of his resentment. So around and around the cycle went, heeding neither health nor happiness.

The anger remained as a lump in his sternum like a smoldering coal. There it singed his psyche, eager to burn anything in sight. But it was not all bad. The man had made the anger serve a purpose; there was nothing else he could have really done with it. The fire inside demanded an outlet – something to burn out against. It pulsed within him like a second heartbeat. It fueled his weary body, warmed his shivering limbs, and endured the buffeting winds. It could bear hunger and stare down fear, and he was in desperate need of both. It was really a saving grace – for without a channeling outlet it would have melted his mind.

How many minutes had passed before he had become aware of himself again he could not say, but it was too late. His hunger and exhaustion had caused him to lose mindfulness and become lost.

He took in his frozen surroundings. Before him was stone and snow, behind him stone and snow, and to his left and right; much the same. The darkness of night, combined with the haze of icy clouds, left him blind past ten meters. He squinted through it, trying to find something, anything that would reorient him, but the mountain rewarded him with nothing but a grey indifference.

He grabbed at the edges of his fluttering cloak and wrapped it tightly about his shoulders. He shivered constantly, but he knew the signs of severe hypothermia, and he had not yet reached it – though it was only a matter of time at this rate.

He picked his way across cold stone until he came to an outcropping that hung out far enough to provide him with meager shelter from the wind. Here he huddled and sought for a plan. The wind sliced across the stone with a woeful howl, hungry for his warmth. That gave him an idea.

When he had first spotted the strange structure in the distance earlier, the wind had been striking at his back. Now, it was striking his right side.

I’ve gone too far right!

It wasn’t much better than a theory, but it was all he had. Out from under the stone he scrambled, and reoriented himself such that the wind blew against his back once again.

He was extra diligent as he went, knowing full well what could happen up here, should he become truly lost. As he went through the flurry, bent forward, cold and hungry, he began to imagine the battle that would soon ensue.

He could not ask for a better battleground. This frozen shelf could very well end up being his final resting place, but at least here he would stand a chance.

He was born for cold climates, and had braved far greater elevations in the past. That being said, he couldn’t help wondering about the predator (he could no longer call it a demon with any confidence). Try as he might, he simply could not remember anything about what its voice sounded like, it’s scent, or even its garments (if it indeed had any at all). The memories were largely dominated by the image of its horned goat skull and…something with antlers.

The memories of the creature that stood out sharpest were the paralyzing fear and stress. Over and over and over the image of the arrow missing his groin by centimeters looped in maddening repetition. Since then his nausea had not truly abated. Neither did a morbid curiosity at what it would have felt like, had the arrow struck its mark.

The man inched his way carefully around a cold boulder sporting grey and green lichen. On the other side lay a strange scattering of stone rubble, clearly man made. What its original design could have been he could not say, but clearly it was large in scale.

He knelt down before one such chunk of rubble, roughly the size of his own body, and examined it. No decoration, no artistic design; clearly it had made up a piece of a purely functional structure, whatever that might have been. The age of the masonry he could not decipher, but clearly it was sourced from local rock. He saw one side of the piece was cut to be curved and almost bowl-like.

He stood and looked around at the similar pieces of stone rubble dotting the hazy landscape to his left. For a second the fog rolled back, or was perhaps parted briefly by the wind, and the standing remains of the structure was revealed – a long stone slide held up by ten foot pillars that marched away downhill.

The man blinked in wonder. He had never seen such a thing in the wilderness before but he could recognize the architecture to be an aqueduct In an age long ago it must have carried fresh water from the mountaintop to a settlement or fortress. Now no water ran along its lofty channel, but its remains could still prove useful. The rubble provided good cover and concealment, and the portions of it that still stood would serve as a clear landmark.

He had roughly twenty square meters and an unknown amount of time to work with. It was a great relief to have something productive to put his mind to.

Carefully he laid out his belongings to take stock of his resources. The list was unfortunately short: a hunting bow, twenty-eight arrows, cloak, hatchet, knife, some charcoal, some handmade cordage, a pinch of milk thistle, a handful of berries, and almost half a royal worth of silver. It wasn’t much, but he had made do with much less in the past.

He went to work establishing a new base. First, his priority had to be warmth. The wind was the biggest factor. He could survive for a while yet without food and water. He wrapped his hands in the corners of his cloak as he went about hauling fallen rubble beneath the looming aqueduct above. Ice and snow crunched beneath the soles of his boots.

Within five minutes he had erected a serviceable shelter of hewn stone, stacked against the wind. In this he huddled with his hands tucked within the folds of his clothing. Still no sign of the enemy.

Although he did not notice, the man’s pulse had quickened and his mind had sharpened. He had a goal again, one he could immediately and actively shape and strive toward. The excitement of seeing a plan take shape swept him up and, at least for a time, spared him the realization that he was decorating what could end up being his own grave.

The man took brief breaks in his hut while he applied his modifications to the battlefield. Here and there he rearranged the rubble light enough for him to lift such that it would provide maximum cover against a ranged attacker (assuming said attacker came from upwind). He tired quickly and his fingers were eventually too cold to perform fine motor functions, so back to his shelter he retreated to further plan.

He hastily scavenged among the mountain ferns and bushes for viable tinder. Wood was out of the question, given the lack of trees, but there was always plant life of some form or another to burn. He scrambled back into his hut with an armload of somewhat dry bush tinder and another armload of wetter material. He made a small stove out of three or four large rocks, and filled its innards with the drier plant tinder. He covered his pile with another stone and scurried off again to forage.

The hunter hurried back to his rickety stove. Without flint he could not strike a spark. He could have improvised with sticks, but he had none of those, either. He produced from his numbing hand a large shard of pink quartz – a lucky find. It wasn’t as good as the flint from his tinderbox, but he could still strike a spark off it with a little skill.

He chiseled at the quartz with another stone until he had made a sharp edge. Then he held the pink rock and carefully struck against the upright edge with the steel of his knife. One-two-three, sparks scattered at his strikes. With the utmost care he ignited the remaining milk thistle in his belt pouch.

Like carrying a fragile baby he gingerly lowered the smoldering tinder into his tightly packed stove and blew into it. It smoked against the plant material and eventually caught fire after thirty minutes of nail-biting work. It took every trick in the book to keep the sad fire from dying out, but he was much warmer because of it. Atop the stove he laid out the wet tinder that would not catch and allowed the fire to dry it.

Eventually he deemed it safe to leave the fire for a few moments. To each strategic piece of cover he went, taking his arrows with him. Behind each position he stuck five arrows point-down into the ground, as well as a small pile of stones. That left him with eight arrows in his quiver. He dumped them on the ground and took his knife to the quiver.

He cut off the shoulder strap and shaved off the ends to be left with two strips of leather roughly twelve centimetres in length. With the point of his knife he drilled a hole in their ends and ran the homemade cord through both of them, making a small cradle with the two straps overlapping each other. Certainly his bow was by far his most effective weapon in his arsenal, but an arrow is far too light to fly true in mountain winds. A heavy stone, however…

He loaded a smooth rock into the leather pouch and took aim at a piece of ruined masonry. He whipped the loaded stone over his head by the ends of the cord and let fly, hitting a piece of rubble from twenty-five feet with the projectile. The force of the impact shattered the fist-sized rock into three pieces and scattered rock dust into the wind. He nodded his approval. Should the wind prevent him from using a bow, his handmade shepard’s sling would have to do.

The Trail – Chapter 7

The hunter took off through the woods like the hunted animal he was. His body was filled with the adrenaline of mortal danger. No longer hampered by his heavy kit and pack, he ascended the steepening incline of the mountain’s base in a swift jog, his hunting bow pumping at his side.

In his head he replayed the events of the past few minutes over and over with morbid fascination. He almost couldn’t believe what was happening.

That thing spoke! And it shoots like a Ranger! Is this someone’s idea of a bad joke!? Why am I always in the middle of shit like this?! I’m sick of this. Gods above, I’m so sick of this…He scowled,wishing he had something to direct his frustrations at other than the conception of his own life as his worst enemy.

He couldn’t forget the feeling when the arrow had almost struck his groin – like lightning running through his bowels. He felt light-headed at the thought.

His leg muscles burned with exertion, but compared to hefting seventy pounds of gear, he felt light as the wind. He couldn’t seem to be happy about it.

Everything I owned was left back there at the waterfall. I can’t go back for it without facing it again…I need to get this back in my favor.

The grey peak loomed above, partially obscure by hazy clouds. He estimated a four hour hike lay before him – less, if he could keep up the pace.

If I can break the tree line before it’s upon me again, I might stand a chance in a one-on-one. He paused in his stride, fighting to catch his breath. That, or the effort will exhaust me too much to fight back…

In his mind the latter scenario was far more likely. It was easy for him to believe the predator would be what finally ended his rather anticlimactic life. But he couldn’t bear the thought of doing nothing about it, so still he struggled against what he suspected was the inevitable end, like a puppet tugging feebly against its strings.

Where the strength to resist came from, or whether it was strength at all, he did not know. He only felt the instinct to survive, and he did not question it.

Soon the view of the blue and white sky was obscured by tree limbs. The light of midafternoon waned behind drifting clouds. The day was dry and breezy. Now more often he hiked past spring streams rushing by, eager to reach the bottom. They carried fallen maple leaves from the previous autumn in their current.

Greedily he drank from the streams, their icy waters lending rumor to the frozen heights awaiting him above. The first pangs of hunger since his stew yawned in his gut like an empty pit, but he could not take the time to forage thoroughly. Everything had come down to timing; every minute was far too valuable to spend on anything other than moving. But he was no stranger to hunger. He could ignore it for a while yet.

The mountainside shed its carpet of fallen leaves and brown pine needles for bare stone. The hunter wove shoulder-to-shoulder between cramped spruce and fir. Their roots lay bare and crawling across the cold rock of the mountainside. The grey-brown hues of the mountainous woodland began showing spots of white snow, dirtied brown by soil and fallen twigs. He had little choice but to trudge through or over them. The drastically wavering weather of early Cheering had caused the dirty snow to alternately freeze and melt during the cold nights and warm days. The thawing forms revealed frozen fossils of last year: nuts, seeds, needles, and leaves, which lent to the dewy scent of the spring mountainside.

Navigating from one game trail to the next as frequently as he could would have normally saved time, but as the elevation continued to increase, so too did the fauna decrease. To make matters worse, no trail led straight up the mountainside. Most meandered, slowly winding around its circumference. Some ended abruptly or were lost in a veil of woodland too treacherous to be navigated. Eventually there was no longer a path to be found, leaving him with the thick wind-blasted bush to wade through. The maple, oak, and ash trees began to thin, leaving the hardy white pine and the blue fir to grow in their place.

Here he was entering the kingdom of the raptors, where hawks and falcons rule. They regarded him from miles away, drifting gracefully upon the atmosphere. There they watched the sweaty creature on two legs flee up the mountainside without tiring, but behind him they could not see anything giving chase.


And so it passed by; the unorganized chaos of the natural world. Brambles and Briar hemmed in at his feet. Limbs and branches scraped at his arms and face. Spring streams, thick mud, rotting trees, and unforgiving stone were his obstacles.

He scrambled, jumped, crawled, climbed and pushed his way through them. The only thoughts on his mind were of hunger, weariness, and panic. His legs held fast, but more often now he would stumble with fatigue

Don’t stop! Don’t you dare stop! You have to keep moving…


         

The once-vivid blue of the afternoon sky dulled to the hazy silver of early evening. The tree cover had just begun to thin out, but he had not yet reached the tree line. Somehow he had grossly underestimated the height of the mountain.

If I don’t make it before dark, that’s it…..

He pushed down the wavering thoughts of doubt rising in his mind, but the floodgates of his psyche weakened with each passing hour. They would not hold forever.

His surroundings began to blend together without detail in his head as the monotony of fatigue set in. His mind slogged through its thoughts without focus, halfway between sleep and wakefulness. He guessed roughly thirty minutes remained before everything would be plunged into the dark of evening. The hope in his heart simmered to an ember and nearly died.

I’m not going to make it, am I…

He sat heavily to the mountain’s stone.

Everything ached. He could not remember a time when everything didn’t ache. His socks and feet were soaked through and his boots caked with mud. Along the sole of the left, a new tear had opened by the heel. What was not soaked with water was coated with dried sweat and the long-accumulated grime of travel. The exposed skin of his face and neck all sported red scrapes and welts. Wearily he looked down at his hands and wrists.

In his left hand he still held the smooth hunting bow. It’s limbs curved and recurved in a graceful symmetry.

He hadn’t once let go of it.

Still visible was the grain of the wood, wrought from a mighty hickory tree in the woods of Fairfield. He had borrowed the woodworkers tools, but the skill, knowledge, and labor had been all his own. Every day, every hour, he had watched the weapon reach maturity under the guidance of his calloused hands. Even the bowstring he had made, though the current one was not the original; all of them from the sinew of a strong elk or deer, hunted by him alone.

From somewhere deep inside of him a spark kindled as he gazed lovingly at the bow, like realizing the presence of a close friend. There it lay in his grasp, a testament to his own craftsmanship; a declaration of competence and proficiency. Painters had their brushes, farmers their plows, and he his bow.

I am not alone. I will not stop here. He regarded the darkening slopes of thinning trees ahead.

Not yet. He grimaced, his jaw firmly set. You don’t need to be a Ranger to survive.

He rose from his seat with a small surge of determination, ignoring the complaints of his legs and lungs. He still had just enough light to navigate by. He set off without hesitation.


The red of the sunset began to dim like a dying candle.

No more than ten minutes passed before he emerged from the tree line. Only low, fragile alpine shrubs and a handful of trees still clung to life up in those frigid heights. Thick cloud cover drifted along the grey rock like a specter, forming indistinct shapes to trick the eye in the dying light. A chill wind cut through his sweat-soaked body like a knife, leaving him shivering down to the very core of his spine. Sharp, drastic hills of bare rock climbed up and away, both to his right and left.

He had reached the bare shoulder of the mountain. He looked left and right.

No more trees for that thing to hide in. Now to find a good place to set an ambush.

He hesitated.

Something far off to the left was struck with the waning silver light of the sunset. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the buffeting wind. With such dim lighting he could not tell what it might be – only that it was something with sharp right-angles.

A distant structure? Atop a mountainside? He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but decided to risk an approach. Wearily he picked his way to the left among the wind-blasted rockface of the mountain.

The Trail – Chapter 6

The traveler was roughly half a mile from the waterfall when he finally noticed something wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the hush that fell over the songbirds, or the sudden stillness of the scavenging woodland critters, or yet perhaps the way the wind carried a different scent from the north-west. Whatever it was that finally caught his attention, he noticed it far too late.

          The man paused in his stride for a brief moment, his head filled with strategies and plans. Suddenly, something sharp touched his lower back, right above the tailbone.

          His breath caught in his throat as he froze in place. All thoughts were expelled from his mind like smoke on the wind.

The point of the blade was pushed harder against his back until he felt it pierce clothing and make contact with his bare skin. A lump formed in his throat and his blood ran cold through his veins.

          Something behind him growled with a deep rumble in its chest. He didn’t need to turn around to know what it was. Without realizing it, he started talking.

“Wait…w-what do you want from me? Why are you doing this?!”

          He realized after he had said it how ridiculous it was to assume the demon could speak Machian Common.

To his horrific surprise, it spoke back.

          So encased in fear was his mind that he could not comprehend the creature’s words – even if it were in a language he understood. It was not, but still he could tell the creature was simply talking to itself more than to him. It spoke a short sentence in a measured cadence.

          But the man wasn’t paying attention. He was wracking his brain through the nauseating fear of a painful death for a method of escape that would not end with a knife in his spine. He came up with several in the span of a few seconds, but hesitated to implement them. A single mistake here would be fatal.

The blade at his back inched up his spine. That did it. The traveler exploded into motion.

          He lurched forward while throwing back his right elbow into where he imagined the hand holding the blade was. He felt his elbow connect with something, and the blade scraped off the skin of his back with a brief, cold pain. He covered a distance of three strides forward where he hoped to be out of the range of the blade and knocked a steel arrow to his bow in a split second, spinning to face the demon with weapon readied – arrow to cheek.

But he saw nothing but woodland.

A rustling to his left – he spun to face the sound and fired. The arrow vanished from the hunting bow and reappeared in the trunk of a thin birch ten meters away with an audible impact like knuckles on a thick wooden door. He lowered his bow and glanced around in paranoia.

What the hell?! Where’d it go…?

 He darted to the left, leapt over a large rock, and ducked behind a thicket for concealment. His eyes scanned all over, groping his surroundings for any sign of movement. He was breathing heavily with the sudden anxiety of combat and felt horribly ill to his stomach.

It’s just toying with me! Where are you – you son-of-a-bitch?! Where are you…?

Slowly and as quietly as possible he loaded another arrow from his quiver. Seconds passed in a tense silence. Every faculty of his senses strained to their utmost.

The woodland lay in an eerie stillness. There he remained crouched behind the thicket, with the seconds stretching on endlessly.

I can’t wait here forever…I have to do something.

He considered moving, but when he tried, his body locked up in fear. He came upon a mental wall that did not want him to face the danger, no matter how necessary. He pushed against the fear with all of his willpower.

Move, damn you! Coward! I said move!!

The inward anger spurned his mind with a self-destructive fire, and he could move again.

Softly and quietly he slunk through the still woodland as a weak breeze stirred the leaves and chilled his ears. He made a mental note that the wind was blowing roughly northwest as he swept the surrounding trees with his gaze.

Still no sign of it.

For a second he entertained the thought that he had dreamt it all. Maybe the stress was getting to him, causing him to see things. But then he probed his lower back with his fingers and found the small hole poking through his cloak and shirt, and the shallow cut where the blade had scraped him in his escape. The bleeding had already stopped and it luckily caused him no great pain. He shivered.

The man moved slowly from cover-to-cover, hugging close to bushes, tree trunks, and other objects large enough to misshape his silhouette and trick prying eyes. But he did not stay moving for long; Hilda had trained him too well for that. He paused frequently, both to listen for sounds and to cease noticeable motion. His fingers tightened and loosened against the smooth wood of the bow in anxiety. He took a moment to draw five extra arrows to carry in his bow-hand and tie the remaining arrows in his quiver tightly together. He adjusted the hatchet in its leather scabbard such that it would not knock against the knife at his hip.

Slowly he sifted through the concealment with a calm patience that belied his state of mind. His heels rolled smoothly with each step, avoiding fallen branches, dead leaves, and hollow frost heaves in his tread.

Several times he had heard a noise – or thought he had – but could see nothing to connect it to. His mind started playing tricks on him like a torturer teasing its victim. He paused in front of a thick fallen tree trunk which acted as decent concealment, and was slowly lowering himself on all fours to crawl under it when he heard something very close by.

          He froze in place and scanned everything he could without moving his head.

With the agility of a monkey, a form roughly man-sized leaped through the air and clung to the upper trunk of a tall elm with all four limbs. It made surprisingly little noise, but still it paused after landing to listen for signs of anything that could have noticed.

          The man, still staying painfully still for fear of being spotted, could see the goat horns and horrid skull-head swivel left and right as it searched for him in the woods. The light of day now struck the creature’s back, revealing a simian tail and some strange assortment of  antlers that defied understanding. Its back was to him, and clearly it had yet to spot him.

Now’s my chance. I may never get another opportunity like this…

His beating heart drummed loudly in his ears as he raised the bow – a millimeter at a time. Hilda’s instruction ran quietly through his head.

“Point. Do not aim.

Intention, then action.”

This monster has tormented me for far too long.., he thought.

His right hand slowly drew back the arrow to chin. The muscles stretching across his shoulder blades burned with the strain of pulling to full-draw. The limbs of the bow groaned quietly with the immense tension.

The predator’s head whipped around to face the noise.

Shit!

The man loosed just as the demon sprang from the tree in an incredible display of acrobatics.

WHAP! The steel arrow burrowed five inches into the trunk of the tree and was left quivering with excess force. The predator landed nimbly to the ground, completely unharmed, and drew something off of its back. A low growl came from the goat skull that was its face.

The second the man saw his shot miss all hope died in his heart. He turned tail and ran as fast as he could. He heard his pursuer hit the ground no more than twenty meters behind him, but he did not turn to see what was happening.

As the panic of the moment threatened to overwhelm him, his training kicked in and dictated his method of fleeing. He zig-zagged to the right and sprinted for a small stream he could see between thick tree coverage, his feet pounding into the soil. Still behind him was the sounds of his pursuer, though he could not tell whether the demon was gaining or not.

The stream in the distance was fast approaching, and he could see there was a slight clearing just before it.

Perfect. A chance to make a clean shot.

          Twenty meters. Fifteen meters. Lungs burning, he broke tree cover into the clearing before the stream. Off a large stone he leaped the width of the stream with the last of his stamina and hit the ground on the other side with both feet. There he dropped to a knee, drew arrow to cheek, spun around and fired.

          At least, he got as far as spinning around. Just as he spun to face the assailant, a blur of motion caught his eye and he screamed as a grey-and-white fletched projectile sprouted from the dirt just below his groin. The arrow had burrowed so deeply into the ground that only the white feather fins remained.

“OH SHIT!” He shouted without realizing he was shouting, and scrambled on all fours behind a large rock just as a second arrow struck the spot his left leg had been a split second ago. The shaft of the arrow quivered threateningly with the force of the blow.

“What the fuck!?

He loaded another arrow as his mind raced in a state of panic.

It’s armed….with a bow?!  No…NONONO! I’ve just lost my one advantage!

He paused to listen with his back against the large erratic, his hunting bow held at half-draw.

That monster was aiming to maim, not to kill… He swallowed the lump in his throat.

He could hear nothing, but he knew better. The demon still had a bead on him. Which meant it was levelling a shot at either the left or right edges of the rock.

….the second I break cover could be my last if I choose the wrong side….

But he was far from out of ideas. He picked two fallen pine boughs up off the ground. Holding one in each hand. He tensed in anticipation before waving them out on either side of the rock’s cover.

          The pine bough in his left hand rustled as a grey arrow streaked by. It struck a tree in the distance with a resounding impact.

          A fraction of a second later, the pine bough in his right hand did the same thing.

The frightening speed of the demon’s consecutive shot either didn’t bother the man or he chose to ignore it – either way it had just given away its position. The man noted the angle of the demon’s grey arrow burrowed in the tree and mapped its origin in his head. He sprang from cover with clenched teeth and a pulse like lightening.

He darted left – only to fake and pivot back to the right with as much agility as his weary limbs could muster. He ran without looking where he was running to. He instead locked his eyes on where he had estimated its position to be, drew arrow to cheek, and fired.

Daughter of Üthwen, Mother of Rangers, please let this hit…!

He didn’t pause to find out. Gasping for breath, he threw himself to the ground and scrambled behind an old stump, trying to make himself smaller than his cover. He heard something in the distance – probably the impact of the arrow. What it struck he couldn’t say.

Long seconds passed by in silence. There he lay upon his chest, pressing himself down against the sodden forest floor. His ribs ached from trying to regain his breath with all of his body weight pressed to the ground. Carefully he edged up to peek around the stump and scan the surrounding woodland. The wildlife had long ago fled the battlefield. Nothing stirred but the breeze.

That thing’s way too quick! It moves through the trees like I walk on the ground! I’ll never stand a chance against it in the woods….

He considered the surrounding terrain, including what he had seen the previous few days, with a new perspective. His best (and only) option, he realized, had been staring down at him this entire time.

The Trail – Chapter 5

The seventh day for the traveler seemed promising at first. The terrain dried out to broken bluffs and overgrown slopes. Life of all kinds flourished at the base of this mountain range – flora and fauna alike. Species of songbird he had not heard in a long time sang in the lush treetops above. Twice he spotted a red-tailed hawk gliding effortlessly on invisible thermals. The rocky escarpments clutching the base of the mountains were lush with spring a month ahead of the rest of the wilds.

The skies held clear and blue save for the sparse fluffy clouds drifting above. The temperature dropped slightly, but he was protected from the buffeting winds by the shelter of the mountains. His route past them became overgrown with briar and paper birch. Thorns raked at his pantlegs and ankles. His own footfalls and the rustling of the undergrowth seemed painfully loud to him, but his surroundings were rife with the sounds of wildlife.

He foraged the rich environment as he made his way. There was no shortage of edible plant life to be found. He collected stinging nettle only an hour after setting out that morning, careful not to prick himself on the poisonous hairs. Twice after that he came upon large swaths of Ostrich Fern tucked in wet soil beneath large, erratic boulders. He cut these with his knife knowing full well the danger of leaving such evidence behind. He harvested liberally from these sources while being sure not to eradicate the plant’s survival.

Around mid-morning he heard a noise ahead that could have only been made by a sizable creature. He had been on high alert the entire time, but found the constant mental awareness to be straining, which had caused him to lose his focus. With as much stealth as he could muster he snuck up on a family of wild boar, sifting through the dirt. The piglets followed in the wake of the large mother sow, making all sorts of grunting sounds. He waited for them to pass and moved on.

On the cusp of noon he became aware of the sounds of running water. Filled with excitement, he followed it to a crystal clear brook flowing from rocky slopes. Diminutive insects danced along its shifting surface. He followed the brook uphill until he came upon a small waterfall nearly twice his height.

          It scattered mist and water particles in the air, which caused the light of day to shimmer around it as though enchanted. The waterfall struck the lichen-covered rock with a crash that muted other sound, save those louder than a shout.

          Up these rocky slopes the man scrambled, and dropped his heavy pack with a loud sigh. He would now need a fire to boil water in order to cook the food he had foraged. But before that he would have to eat. He had burnt far too many calories to ignore the gnawing hunger in his gut. He broke down his pack and dug into the remaining venison.

          As he did so the man scouted the perimeter of the waterfall to get a better feel for his surroundings. Hungrily chewing into the savory meat, he hiked fifty meters up past the waterfall with nothing but his bow and arrows on his back. There he could see the slopes of the mountains. Some of their peaks were hidden in cloud and fog, but he guessed their height to be just over a kilometer. The surface of the closest one was covered with a hide of evergreens on which the sun painted the shape of the drifting clouds.

          He dug out his notebook from a pocket and flipped through its pages for mention of these, but found too many potential matches.

          It doesn’t much matter at this point I suppose, He mused to himself as he put away the notebook. Lost or not I have a demon to deal with.

He returned from his scouting to the waterfall with a fresh perspective, new information, and a few extra foraged items. These he would not be eating. He instead stowed them away in a belt pouch for later.

Finding still no sign of the predator, the man dug into his pack and began laying out each tool he would need to make a fire. With everything ready before him, he sighed.

No other way around it. I need to boil water. I’ll never survive against this monster if I’m starving.

He went to work with an uncomfortable haste in an attempt to ignore his emotions.

The truth was: he had been leaving too many signs of his passage in the last twelve hours, and the likelihood of the demon finding them was dangerously high. Any moment could become his second – and last – encounter with the predator.

He was filled with terror. But he wouldn’t look it in the face. Instead he pushed it further and further back into the untouched reaches of his mind from where he naively thought himself to be safe.

He marked two roughly six inch wide X’s with his shovel beneath as much tree and bush coverage as possible. In those X’s he dug out holes roughly a foot deep, with the two holes four inches apart. He reached in and with his hands dug open a small passage connecting the bottoms of the two holes together.

In one hole he placed small bits of kindling and burnable tinder. From a pouch he removed the milk thistle fluff he had found while scouting, and struck flint against the steel of his hatchet to nest a spark within it. The milk thistle caught fire eagerly as he blew into it to feed the flames with air. Quickly he placed it within the tinder-filled hole, leaving the other hole empty.

Like clockwork the concealed fire burned to life without a problem. From the empty hole the hungry fire drew air through the connecting underground passage – like breathing through a straw. It’s light was effectively hidden a foot underground, and the dense canopy above it would help minimize the visibility of the smoke.

He filled his cooking pot with fresh water from the waterfall and set it to boil above his concealed fire.

While waiting for the water to boil he set off with bow and arrow in hand to run reconnaissance. He picked his way slowly and cautiously while constantly keeping his head on a swivel. Of course he spotted multiple creatures in the alpine woods surrounding him, but noticed no sign of the demon.

It was impossible to say what kind of lead he had on it. In the first place, he wasn’t even sure his sighting of it in the rocky slopes yesterday was credible. He could have easily just imagined it.

But better safe than sorry. Let’s assume the worst-case scenario and prepare for it.

Worst-case scenario; the demon tracked him down through the bluffs, saw through his maneuver east, and tailed him across the bog from earlier.  In that case he might have a lead of three or four leagues at best. At worst; it knows he’s here and is watching him as he contemplates this.

He returned to his boiling water with an idea brewing in his head. He refilled his canteens and drank while he set about adding his ingredients to make a soup.

The idea stirring in the traveler’s head coalesced into a plan. He checked the sky. Roughly two hours had passed since he had set his pack down by the waterfall, making it early afternoon.

Plenty of time.

He hastened to scarf down a soup of nettle, fern, and garlic mustard – heavily seasoned with salt. He shoveled the two piles of dirt back into the holes of the firepit and re-covered it with fallen plant matter, effectively erasing any sign of it. He left his pack hidden in a bush beside the roaring waterfall and took off into the woods armed with his hunting bow.

If he was to assume the worst-case scenario that the predator was still on his trail and headed for the waterfall, then he would need to somehow lead it away using his own tracks.

He moved swiftly through the trees and over the brush without the seventy pounds of weight on his back. He didn’t bother trying to reduce his footprint on his surroundings. Rehydrated and well fed, he loped along at a light jog between pine trees laden with cones, their scales closed up in the wet weather. For over an hour he made tracks leading away from the site of the waterfall, taking random turns here and there for extra measure.

Satisfied with his progress, the man came to a stop. Sitting down on a rock, he went about removing his tattered boots as he paused to catch his breath. Once reduced to his stocking feet, he went to work quickly implementing his plan. From a pouch he withdrew several peeled strands of dogbane. He rubbed the strands together between the palms of his hands to separate the longest of them. Doing this caused his skinned hand to burn noticeably, but it did not bleed. With the longer strands left over, he spiraled each of the lengths around the other in a clockwise circle while twisting each individual strand counter-clockwise. This clockwise-counter-clockwise pattern created the friction needed to keep all the strands together and secure. He did this rapidly with the practiced legerdemain of a tailor. The final product of his efforts was two strong cords of roughly four feet in length.

With his handmade cords and all the fallen twigs and small sticks he could find he began strapping the dead foliage to the undersides of his stocking feet in what looked like a bizarre display of lunacy. He hung his boots off his belt by the laces and awkwardly trudged off into the woods.

He made another random turn before doubling back toward the waterfall. Glancing behind him revealed his now pseudo-conceal tracks in the dirt. No longer was the tread of his boots clearly giving away his position, and the tell-tale sign of a footprint instead looked like a scuffled patch of earth in no discernable shape. The odd assortment of twigs, leaves, and sticks tied to the undersides of his feet soon became unbearably uncomfortable. Satisfied (and a little proud) of his efforts to thwart his pursuer, he discarded his bizarre footwear for the comfort of his worn boots. Eager to return to the waterfall where he had left his pack, the man strode quickly through the brush with high hopes.

He never made it back.

The Trail – Chapter 4

The sixth day proved to be one of the most physically demanding so far. By noon he had covered roughly four leagues, with another three in the afternoon. Under the weight of his kit the pace was brutal, but the fear of death drove him on.

The weather held without precipitation, but refused to clear up for even a moment. Still Solus shone through as a blurred golden light partially obscured by thick clouds, allowing him to maintain a roughly accurate northern bearing.

The whole morning he wracked his brain for a strategy. He knew very little about his opponent. What little he did know only served to unnerve him; the creature was neither man nor beast – capable of fearsome brutality. It was vaguely intelligent. It could obscure its presence with a supernatural stealth. Lastly: it was driven with a single-mindedness to kill him for reasons unknown.

He struggled to understand the nature of the predator and its motivations. Never had he faced an enemy like it. And then there was the gruesome challenge given with the severed fingers.

Why go through the trouble of declaring its intent like that?

He paused in his tracks, breathing heavily from the day’s exertions.

It doesn’t matter. I need to regain the element of stealth and settle a new base camp that I can fall back to. First I have to shake my pursuer.

He fell back on basic evasion tactics. Twice during the day he broke off from his bearing and took erratic and unpredictable turns. Once was just before noon, when he had crested a long, sloping hill.

Further to his north had been a gentle spread of more verdant green woodland. Far to the east he had seen a mountain ridge running north-south. The taller of their peaks still retained their white caps of snow from the winter. Nestled in the vale of the mountains were what appeared to be more woodland, darker in hue than the rest. To the north-west was the gentle, rocky decline of the hill, followed by a narrow bluff the color of heather and crumbling rock.

He had elected to break off west toward the rocky bluff. He would leave virtually no footprints on the firmer terrain, and there should be less undergrowth to disturb with his passing.

It proved tough going, however. The man had to scramble between large boulders using all four limbs. He fell once on a loose rock, bashing his knee and skinning his hand painfully. He cussed aloud and gritted his teeth. Luckily the injury proved superficial – painful though it was.

Roughly five miles from the base of the bluffs he took a break under an old oak. He experienced a remarkable sensation of weightlessness as he shrugged off his pack and stretched his weary limbs. Vying for a bird’s-eye view, he scaled the trunk of the oak until alighting on a sturdy branch from which he could see for miles around.

I’ll cut east from here. Those snow-capped mountains have to feed some body of fresh water…

He looked back south-east, from where he had come. The rocky bluffs were still visible, just as he had hoped. His eyes focused on it, looking for anything out of place.

Mid-way up it, something moved.

          At least, he thought something had moved. It was hard to tell from such a long distance, but he could have sworn he had seen movement. Just a dark speck, and then it was gone. It could have just been a trick of the mind.

There it is again! Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Is it tracking me through the rocks? There should be no trace of me…

          Perhaps he had just imagined it after all.

He picked his way back down the tree, but stopped short before reaching the bottom. Dotting the trunk and branches of the tree were strange, five-pointed markings smudged in a dull red.

The throbbing pain of the hand he had skinned earlier returned, but this time he did not ignore it. Still perched in the tree, he looked at his palm.

It was slick with fresh blood. The markings on the tree had been from his own bleeding hand.

Then realization hit him.

…Shit! Have I been leaving behind bloody handprints??

          His heart sunk into his stomach. He remembered all the times he had been forced to use handholds to navigate the rocky slopes. His hand had been killing him, but he had just ignored it in his haste.

Idiot! You’ve just led it straight toward you!!

          Seething with self-loathing, he quickly wrapped his skinned hand in a clean handkerchief after washing the raw scrapes. He mentally berated himself with an endless stream of insults which only served to further degrade his focus and self-confidence.

Feeling defeated and emotionally exhausted, he made his second maneuver west toward the line of mountains in the distance.

The following hours felt arduous. His body was beginning to fatigue from the brutal pace he had set. His throbbing hand persisted. In his head he replayed his mistake over and over again and wielded it against himself like a weapon.

To make matters worse, the terrain proved increasingly rigorous. The sloping woodland transformed into the beginnings of a soggy mire, huddled in the shadow of the mountain range. The taller trees here, with a less secure hold on the sodden earth, had recently been uprooted and dashed across the bog by yesterday’s storm. Plant debris lay flattened and scattered. Collections of stagnant water pooled up against the exposed undersides of the tree’s gnarled roots.

          He used the trunks of the fallen trees as bridges to navigate the scummy pools. He moved slower now. The footing was not particularly stable, and his legs trembled with fatigue.

Finally, too drained to continue, he came to a halt two hours before sunset. He made camp under the uprooted base of a thick maple. It’s roots reached out above his head like petrified tendrils. Clods of fresh earth still clung in between them. He made use of the surrounding dead foliage to camouflage his new shelter with branches, leaves, and moss. He crawled in through the small entrance he had left.

          Foraging in the vicinity of his camp would inform any experienced tracker of his habitation, so he instead allowed himself to indulge in his precious supply of venison (leaving him with three-and-a-half pounds), and finished off a canteen of water. He had one left, which would last a maximum of two days if he didn’t plan on cooking. Hopefully the mountains would provide more. If not, he would probably start suffering from dehydration by the end of tomorrow, assuming he survived that long.

          Night descended. The air hung thick and humid about him. The weary traveler made no fire, and uttered no sound. There in the dark of his camouflaged den he sat with the termites and the insects, listening to the bullfrogs bellow. His feet ached. His knees throbbed. He scratched at his unwashed hair and groin. His mind crawled within the dark corners of his head like a blind pauper – depraved and miserable. Deep down he hoped just to be killed in his sleep and be done with it. His eyelids grew heavy with exhaustion.

He awoke before sunrise, curled in the dirt with his cloak wrapped around him. The muscles in his legs had grown sore and heavy. His stomach groaned with hunger. Gingerly he stepped out of his hidden den with bow in hand, fully prepared to be assaulted at any moment. There standing in the still waters twenty feet away was an adult bull moose.

Crowning its head was a rack of antlers spanning six feet, dripping with bog water. It raised its massive, bearded face from the water’s surface to regard the dirty creature before it. The man stared back. Neither party moved.

There was an unspoken connection between the two. In the man’s eyes the moose saw no hostility – only desperation. The man saw something profound in the moose’s eyes, though he could not grasp its significance or meaning. The giant slowly turned and ambled off into the woodland, leaving him alone. The area seemed calm and devoid of any signs of danger.

As light graced the blue-grey skies from the east, the lone hunter finished his preparations. Ravenously he ate from his dwindling supply of venison, leaving him with a measly pound-and-a-half. He took only small, desperate sips from his one remaining canteen of fresh water, doing his best to ignore its decreasing weight every time he put it back in his pack. His camouflaged shelter he left just as it was.

Armed and alert, he picked his way across the wooded mountain base with hopes of fresh water in mind. Every few minutes he turned to look behind him in paranoia. He had not fired his bow since hunting the deer, but he made sure to never leave it out of his reach for the moment when he would need to fight for his life. It was only a matter of time.

The Trail – Chapter 3

The storm beat at the old masonry of the ruined watchtower. Within its crumbling walls the man finished skinning his deer after gutting it outside. He worked with the mechanical efficiency of an experienced craftsman. As his hands moved of their own accord, his mind reeled with the recent developments.

          He had been presented with two facts of great import; people are most likely nearby, and something out there is killing for fun. As he cut open the sternum and removed the heart of the doe, he was reminded of the human corpse with its chest ripped open.

          Though he didn’t want to admit it, the most likely perpetrator was a demon. The foul denizens of Gaul would cut a man open like that, he mused. He paused in his work as this thought returned to haunt him.

          He leaned against the deer carcass, strung up from the elm tree and angled so as to stay out of the rain. He was covered in blood up to his elbows. His grip on the knife was starting to grow slick. Looking out into the grey rainfall, he tried his best to argue against the demon hypothesis.

It could be…what about a…., he racked his brain for another answer.

These lands have no shortage of curses, guardians, and other such phenomena left over from the Dominus Era. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve faced something like it. Although this time around I won’t have anyone’s help. And it won’t be a test.

The best strategy would be to avoid this creature at all costs. The faster he escaped its hunting grounds, the better.

          The night lit up with lightning and clashed with thunder a moment later.

Everything hinges on this storm. I can’t go anywhere in it without becoming lost.

He finished picking apart the carcass, careful to cut away from the deer to avoid pushing the fur into the meat with his knife. The fire crackled merrily and spouted sparks into the cold air. Above it the tenderloins of the doe sizzled. The vaporizing juices of the meat set his stomach rumbling. He ate his fill of venison that night as he buffed the steel of his hatchet against his whetstone.

          The lightning ceased in the dead of night, leaving only the steady drumming of rainfall in its wake. Some of the animals huddled in their dens, nests, and burrows while the nocturnal beasts snooped through the undergrowth in complete darkness. The scruffy man lay huddled next to the fire under the partially-collapsed roof. His pack was tucked under his head as he breathed in a slow rhythm, deep in sleep.


          He was awakened suddenly by a shiver that ran up his spine. He quickly became aware of his surroundings as his intelligence struggled to come online. The rain was now a low droning drizzle. The toads and peepers still croaked and cheeped in a dual chorus. The fire crackled weakly and offered minimal light and heat. Something felt off.

          Fear shot through him in a successful attempt to rush the waking process. He propped himself up on one elbow and peered warily into the darkness. Just on the edge of the fire’s dim light – where shadow meets the void – a form shifted ominously.

          The man froze, his heart tripping over itself. The ambiguous shape slunk closer. Slowly it stalked into the edge of the firelight with an insidiousness that made the his skin crawl.

          His eyes could barely make out its features. Clearly it was neither man nor beast. It’s head was a thing out of a sick nightmare. It looked like a living skull of a horned goat that ended in hideous square teeth. It’s eyes were hollow black voids. The creature appeared vaguely quadrupedal; it crawled on all fours in a crouch. A tail lashed behind it, and something was draped over it like a cloak.

          Some strange pointed appendages grew out of the monster’s back, though whether they were a fabrication of his own terror he could not say.

          It stared at him with hollow eye sockets. The man’s throat went dry and his testicles shrunk closer to his body in revulsion. Still frozen there on his bedroll, he groped around in the dark for a weapon. His couldn’t break the gaze of the monster. The skull of its head bobbed rhythmically as the space where its eyes should be stared into his soul. The man’s hand came to rest on the haft of his hatchet behind his back.

          The monster’s hand reached out and dropped something on the ground in front of it. Breaking his gaze from the demon’s skull face for a moment, the man looked down. Two severed human fingers lay before him.

The message was clear; you’re next.

He returned his gaze to the monster, and just like that, it was gone.

          The man now realized he had been holding his breath the entire time. He gasped for air and slumped against the wall, too stunned to process what he had just seen. His knuckles ached from gripping the hatchet too tightly.

          This much was clear: he had just been issued a deathmatch. Only one of them was going to leave these woods alive.

Lords above…what the fuck was that? Why is it after me?! Am I going to be butchered like that corpse?? I need to get out of here! I need to run!!

          In the back of his mind the man realized he was starting to panic. He hyperventilated and trembled from head to toe. His thoughts blended into a whirlpool of basic survival instincts.

Calm down! I have to calm down or I’ve already lost!

          He steadied his breathing and eased his white-knuckled grip on the hatchet. His heartbeat slowed, allowing his mind to recover its rationality. He managed to gather his wits and formulate a plan.

Food is no longer my top priority, self-defense is. I’m no longer safe here. As long as it knows where I am….

He struggled to his feet and rapidly began stringing his hunting bow with trembling fingers. His mind raced ahead of his body.

I can’t afford to be rummaging through my pack to retrieve a weapon. I need to have everything necessary on my person.

He slung his quiver over his shoulder after drawing a fresh arrow from it. He nocked it to the bowstring and lay it close by on the ground. On his belt he had rigged his hunting knife and hatchet. He scooped up some charcoal from the dying fire and stowed it into a pouch.

A grey dawn crawled out from the east.

Any appetite he might have awoken with had soured and vanished. He regarded the remaining venison. It would weigh him down slightly, but relying on only foraged food might not provide the energy he would need to survive in the coming days. With no time to salt or preserve the meat, it would most likely spoil within the week.

He wrapped roughly five pounds of venison (enough to feed him for a week with skillful rationing) in a clean cloth and packed it away. He took close stock of the rest of his gear; A collapsible shovel and bow saw, needle and thread, two extra socks and undergarments, fur-lined hat and gloves, wire and snare for trapping, flint and tinder, two canteens, tin mess kit, stick of wax, small tarp, tin of salt, eight metal stakes, bedroll, cloak, coil of rope, small whetstone, two handkerchiefs, and roughly a week of canned army rations.

          This did not include his hatchet, knife, hunting bow, quiver of thirty arrows, money, and various components stowed in his belt pouches.

All of this gear will slow me down and make me an easy target. On the other hand, I can utilize most of it as a means of self-preservation. Especially if I have to improvise.

He was suddenly struck with the absurdity of it all. Here, in the depths of the wild frontier, hundreds of miles from civilization, a murderous demon happens to come after him of all creatures. And here he was just trying to get by.

What did I do to deserve this? Nothing! I have done nothing to deserve this! Haven’t the gods shat on my life enough? How much more of this must I endure??

He let out a strangled sigh and dropped to his knees. A hard lump grew in his throat. He ran his hands through his dirty hair in frustration and anguish. Nothing made sense. Nothing made sense and nothing he did seemed to matter. Fate always had a way of rending the joy from his heart.

…..fuck. I don’t think I can do this….

There he sat in silent pause born of his own hopelessness. The first rumor of daybreak cast a gentle silver through the soft drizzle of spring rain. The songbirds had awakened and taken up their cheery tune, oblivious of the well of despair emanating from the slumped form in the ruined watchtower.

          Emotional exhaustion left his mind numb and empty. But after a few minutes of dead stillness, he rose to his feet and mindlessly finished preparing his gear as though physically compelled.

          Hefting his pack upon his back, he took up his hunting bow and scanned his surroundings for any signs of the demonic predator. Only thirty minutes had passed since he had been awakened. The rising sun now drove off the lingering twilight with an orange halo that stretched across the eastern horizon.

          Maple, oak, elm, and birch trees poured the collected rainfall from their leaves like wine from a ewer. Deceptively deep puddles had formed in depressions amid the undergrowth, obscuring slick mud beneath. Everything seemed to have the fresh green blush of spring about it.

          The man was far too on-edge to notice. To his mind, every bush had become a potential hiding place for evil – every noise the shuffling of demonic feet. But nothing happened. Tensed and wound-up though he was, nothing sprang out at him or tried to harm him in any way.

          So it was that he left the confines of the ruined watchtower with reluctance out into the soft drizzle. He moved with a haste that perfectly reflected his state of mind.

It was kill or be killed now. The endless expanse of the frontier would serve as the arena for a deathmatch between the two hunters.

The Trail – Chapter 2

The man strode through the dense brush of the woodland. His head and shoulders were dappled by broken spring sunlight that permeated the forest canopy. A cold breeze ran its fingers through his hair and cooled the sweat on his neck. He was surrounded by a droning symphony of cicadas. Songbirds competed with one another in mating calls as small mammals darted from tree to tree in search of edible treasures on the forest floor. His nostrils were filled with the rustic scents of pine and birch and fresh loam, liberating his mind from worldly concerns for a brief time.

          He had parted ways with the mystery river from yesterday. He had unintentionally strayed east some ten miles, which proved to be a blessing as he came across a familiar mountain range clearly labeled in the notebook he carried.

          So the panic of being lost no longer assailed the travel-stained woodsman, but other thoughts did.

          The nights were the worst for him. He was used to solitude and the way it plays with one’s head, but out here, knowing he was walking toward mortal peril, his mind fell into a deep darkness. Left with nothing but time to while away as he waited for the reprieve of sleep to take him, he mulled over his failures – some larger than others.

I feel like a fraud. And rightly so. I’m no Ranger…

          He stared at the crackling firepit and wondered how things could have been different, how he had plenty of chances to change, and how each step he had made up until now felt like a deep, aching loss. The campfire had more life in it than his unblinking eyes, reflecting the dancing flames. It was on nights like these that he seriously considered giving up. The temptation to flee from the responsibility before him tugged at his cancerous heart like a bowstring.  

          But while his mind listened to the temptation, his body – for whatever reason – would not respond. And as the morning came around and he rose from an exhausted sleep he continued north. Why wouldn’t he just run away? He didn’t have the answer to this.

          The start of the fifth day proved bleak and dreary. The sun was nowhere to be seen among the canopy of grey. Toward what the man thought was west the dark atmosphere had coalesced into thunderheads.

At the very least, rain. At the very worst, a powerful storm.

“Storm Father have mercy…”

By his best guess it would be over him before noon. He had roughly three hours to prepare.

          He considered the options as he walked with a renewed pace. He would need shelter to wait out the storm – and that would cause him to lose precious time. But losing your bearings in a lightning storm would be even worse, he countered.

          Perhaps I could turn this to my advantage, he thought with building determination.

He had spotted several fresh instances of scat just earlier that day. The pile was still warm, and contained samples of the local bushes and shrub. The pellet shape removed any doubt in his mind: deer. Probably a herd of half a dozen. It wasn’t long after that he came across their trail, well-trodden through the undergrowth. It ran roughly east-west, with a northward curve toward the east.

The ground was too dry to spot any definitive prints, but with any luck they were headed northeast, not west. They could be within two miles, maybe.

          He scratched a memo into his notebook and took the deer trail northeast. Ravens cawed dark omens at him from the trees as a chill wind broke against his back. The leaves rustled and loose branches tumbled to the ground. He took a moment to dig out his grey cloak from his pack and cover himself from the chill.

          An hour passed and still he saw no sign of good shelter. His mood dropped with each passing moment. To the west approached a thick grey sheet draped across the horizon: rain. It accelerated in its approach, as if impatient to claim him.

          Just then, coming around a sharp bend in the trail, the man came upon a structure in the distance. He almost missed it with its grey color blending into grey surroundings. The man approached it with a measure of caution. Too many times had he walked into an abandoned building, only to find a wild animal claiming residence.

          Perhaps it was the weather and the way the incoming storm made the hairs on his arms stand up, but he felt a growing discomfort, and paused to retrieve his hunting bow from the side of his pack. He bent the stout limbs of the bow by one end and strung it to complete the weapon.

          In a calm but quick manner he uncapped his quiver, drew out two arrows, and re-capped it. They were both black-shafted broadhead arrows fletched with hen feathers. He hoisted his pack on, nocked an arrow to the bowstring, and held the other in the same hand that held the bow. The entire time he kept a wary vigil on his surroundings.

          Approaching the building, he first noticed the antiquity of it. It’s stout grey stone masonry harkened back to the Freedom Era. It resembled what would have been a watchtower back in the days of the Pilgrims, but the second and third floors had both collapsed, leaving the first floor with half a roof. Nature and the vast passage of time had assimilated what remained into the landscape.

          A sturdy elm had dug its roots right through the southern wall, and a large  dirt mound of thriving fungus had developed where the exposed portion of the roof would drip the most water in a rain.

          He approached with both hands on the bow. Through the open stone entryway into the single decrepit chamber nothing moved, and not a sound was made. He entered and took a look around. The bit of roof remaining would serve him well in the storm, and only having three walls was better than having none.

          That being decided he dropped his pack and bow inside, drew his hatchet and made quick time in gathering and splitting a modest supply of dry wood while he still could. The first rumble of thunder came from far away, but still it reverberated in his chest like the beat of a drum. The wood gathering had worked him into a sweat, and his preparation time was just about run out.

          Quickly he snatched up his bow and quiver, leaving everything else behind in the ruins.


          The man found his way easily enough back to the deer trail just as the storm broke overhead. He moved slowly now as the sheet of rain smote his hooded head and cloaked shoulders. The water ran down the bow and across his knuckles. A white streak of light appeared behind him for an instant. He counted.

One…two…three…four…five…

The resounding clap of thunder followed. He tried not to let it unnerve him, but secretly he was unable to. Now the only sound to be heard was the static drone of rainfall accompanied by the baritone of croaking toads. Any sounds he made were practically silent.

          He was afraid he had lost his quarry until he came upon fresh tracks in the slick, muddy ground. He followed them, lost the trail, then picked it back up again several minutes later. Twice he had to double back and start again. The hellfire of lightning grew closer. Another flash.

One…two…thr –

The resounding blast of thunder deafened him and caused the bones in his legs to quiver. But it also startled something else in the wood. The man spotted it, and froze in place. A four-legged creature gracefully bounded over a fallen tree and trod a few meters further in agitation. The man’s muscles in his legs groaned in protest with how still he had been crouched – but he couldn’t afford to be spotted.

          He could just make out the deer’s head in the downpour. It turned to look toward him. It’s large upright ears twitched. Then it turned to look the other way. The man didn’t hesitate. He moved as smoothly as possible behind concealment and raised the bow with an extended arm. Without moving the bow, his right hand drew the arrow back until his knuckle touched the base of his jaw. He let out the air in his lungs until he could feel his heartbeat. He waited for a moment in between beats, and fired.

          The deer fled in a few panicked bounds before bleeding to death out of sight. The man made a noise of triumph and gave chase. The other deer still hidden from him in the storm bolted off into the woodland.

          Now sopping wet, the man stooped over the body to maneuver it when his heart leaped into his throat and he gave a straggled cry of surprise. An equally startled murder of crows abandoned their meal in a fright. He was indeed standing over a body – but not of a deer.

          The mutilated corpse of a human lay bloated and decaying in the storm. It’s chest was opened and feeding a mound of scavenging larvae. Its eyes and genitals had been long picked clean by vultures, with no sight of its clothing to be found. The hunter could tell the body was male by the tuft of bloodied blond beard left clinging to what once was a face.

Why is there a person out here? Am I near a settlement?

          The smell that was dampened with distance and rainfall was now oppressively strong. The man lowered himself to his haunches, his face furrowed and disturbed. A cause of death was largely impossible to determine. The corpse had been ravaged and picked apart for too long.

          The opened chest cavity stood out the most to him. The meat that clung to the ribs had been thoroughly picked off and eaten, but not by the same animal that had opened the chest.

          He ran through a quick mental checklist of local wildlife that could have caused this chest wound. The list was frighteningly long. Plenty of beasts could have done this, but he struggled to think of one that would.

          To kill a human, only to leave their body to the scavengers? The man was stumped. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But he had a growing suspicion the culprit wasn’t just some wild animal. It was something that killed for sport, not for necessity.

          That narrowed the list of suspects drastically. Bandits, maybe? Leave it to a person to horribly butcher their own kind. But he wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t an outlaw’s style to go through all this effort, especially after they’ve already taken the victim’s valuables.

          That further narrowed the list. He backed away from the corpse to escape the wretched smell of death. He had started shivering as a result of being drenched by the rain.

          A white blinding flash connected sky to earth and struck him with the resulting thunderous clap. The man didn’t flinch this time. He was brooding too deeply in his own thoughts. He retrieved his deer carcass in somber dread.